A New Mexico fire chief who was arrested and relieved of command at the scene of a wildland fire by the local sheriff’s department has been exonerated of all charges.
Fire Chief Eddie Velarde, of the Velarde Volunteer Fire Department, was found not guilty of three charges: obstructing a sheriff’s officer, disorderly conduct, and concealing his identity. The case was heard by a judge sitting without a jury.
The case arose at a wildland fire on March 29, 2011 at which Chief Velarde was the Incident Commander. Lieutenant Adam Archuleta of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s arrested Chief Velarde because he was “creating general hysteria at the scene that was doing more harm than good.”
Lt. Archuleta is quoted as saying “He mentioned several times there were people trapped in the fire. There was no one trapped in the fire. It becomes clear to me that he is over-exaggerating, and he has no control of the fire scene whatsoever.” After arresting the fire chief, Lt. Archuleta assumed command and the fire was wrapped up soon thereafter.
Regardless of whether Lt. Archuleta was justified or not, the case raises a larger question: Can law enforcement authorities exercise the power of arrest to remove an incident commander? There is nothing in NIMS ICS that even remotely addresses this complex issue.
While admittedly a rarity, police officers do arrest firefighters at incident scenes from time to time. I have located 10 different cases since 2001, and in 6 of the cases it was the fire department IC that was arrested for failing to do what the police officer (who was not the IC nor part of unified command) demanded.
My brother Bill (a police detective lieutenant) and I will be discussing this very issue at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore later this month. The program is called: Police-Fire Wars – Who Is In Charge? There are no simple answers but there certainly are things that fire service leaders can and should do to minimize the likelihood of these unfortunate incidents.
In the mean time, Chief Velarde is said to be contemplating a civil suit. For more on the story.